Yesterday’s Thomas B. Fordham Institute event, Are Local School Boards Vital in 21st Century America? was not short of good and open debate between some of the area’s most recognized school board experts. Moderated by Michael Petrilli, Executive Vice President, Thomas B. Fordham Institute, the panelists included:
- Christopher S. Barclay, President, Montgomery County Board of Education, Maryland
- Anne L. Bryant, Executive Director, National School Boards Association
- Chester E. Finn, Jr., President, Thomas B. Fordham Institute
- Gene I. Maeroff, Founding Director, Hechinger Institute, Teachers College, Columbia University and author of School Boards in America: A Flawed Exercise in Democracy
Bryant presented the argument that school boards are absolutely essential in any successful school model. She argues that school boards have the capacity to act as the agents of change, and have developed a certain amount of accountability to the public around excellence and improving student achievement. School boards make sure that in the end, the students are the focus. With the help of national organizations, school boards have the opportunity to receive professional development, and use data to drive their decisions. Overall, Bryant argues that school boards are the link between the community and the school system and should not be abandoned.
Maeroff was not necessarily ready to argue that students would be affected positively or negatively by eliminating the presence of school boards. He argued the need to improve the current school board system and its role. His book and summary touches on creating a new kind of school board with appointed persons, as opposed to elected persons, in order to avoid certain moral deficiencies. His research demonstrates the character of board members whose personal values or hidden agendas impede and undermine the work of the superintendent, preventing positive changes in school systems.
Barclay argued in favor of school boards stating the importance of keeping it simple by focusing on student achievement and what can be done for students. He said it is important for boards to be wary of quick fix ideas or policies that may distract from the bottom line. Barclay’s personal integration into the school board system as an impassioned father, who wanted to have the best educational options for his family, provided insight into his argument that while governance is important, it is more important to address the needs of individual and underrepresented students as opposed to the student body as a collective.
Finn did not argue for or against school board systems necessarily. His focus was around the fact that separate governance systems do not make sense. He mentioned how separate funding structures encumber equity, and how this affects education and student achievement. He asked for proof of an urban area where there has been a child-driven initiative, and strongly argued that states cannot rightly link governance to student achievement. Whether it is an incompetent principal, a less than quality teacher, a dumb state rule, or an overzealous superintendent, Finn argues that it is important to identify which governance structures are getting in the way of student achievement and to eliminate or improve them.
Overall, the conversation revolved around what is best for the children. While there were arguments that strongly recommended keeping school boards as a way of meeting community needs, most agreed that there are some underlying issues in the structure of governance that often prevents school systems from having the power and capacity to address the concerns of the community and to explore what systems affect successful student achievement.
The video for the panel will be available on the Thomas B. Fordham Institute website on Thursday.